View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Tinga's New Wave Tacos."
A taco, it could be argued, is the basic unit of consumption in Southern California, the parcel of corn and spice and animal whose masters line our boulevards, a food whose reach extends from the meanest barrio streets to the heart of Beverly Hills. When we move to New York or Paris, it is tacos that haunt our dreams; when we are hungry after a night of dancing, it is the taqueros who nourish us, who appear precisely where and when we need them the most.
I would say that it was Mexico's gift to our culture if it weren't so obvious that tacos existed on this land long before it was conquered by the United States. Tacos are as much a part of the landscape here as Ballona Creek or the Hollywood Hills or the saber-toothed tigers that moulder beneath tar.
In the last several years, like the Rio Hondo during a rainstorm, taco culture has overflowed its banks and spread into places where it had never existed before. A cursory drive around Santa Monica during lunchtime will reveal a battalion of wheeled cooks who slip Korean galbi, Chinese roast pork or Filipino adobo into their tortillas. The African-American tradition of tacos is long-standing — look at the line outside Sky's on Pico sometime — and I think it may not be long before we see Jamaican jerk-pork tacos, Nigerian salt-fish tacos and Indian potato tacos, although the latter may actually exist by another name. (One of my favorite cookbooks, a manual of Mexican cooking published in Mumbai, describes a tortilla as an amusingly thin chapati.)
And finally — almost 25 years after Border Grill first opened its doors on Melrose, Bruce Marder peddled his $22 steak tacos at Rebecca's, and John Sedlar first prepared radicchio tacos stuffed with crab — we are seeing a resurgence of what you might call artisanal tacos, which is to say expensive, clean-tasting, carefully crafted tacos served in design-intensive dining rooms, and made with first-rate ingredients.
The latest of these new-wave taquerias is the brand-new Tinga, a storefront a few doors north of the American Rag complex, a narrow, discreetly marked place that from the street looks as much like a furniture store as it does like a small restaurant.
Tinga covers all the tropes you might expect from a café on an arty block. The plates and cutlery are compostable; the décor is (or at least looks as if it is) fashioned from recycled wood. The tortillas are made in-house, the coffee is roasted in-house, and the agua frescas, Mexican-style fruit drinks, are freshly made. The recipes — grilled sweet corn with lime and cream; a kind of savory rice pudding with chiles and cream; the namesake (and bland) Puebla-style tinga — have been researched, taken from all over Mexico, rather than drawn from centuries of tradition.
There was a louder-than-usual buzz about Tinga before it opened, based on a rumor that the owners were planning to base the restaurant on La Super Rica, a beloved yet controversial taqueria in Santa Barbara. The creamy, cheesy cooking at La Super Rica was for many years different from anything you could find anywhere else within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles, and although many of us eventually realized that most of the dishes were basically free interpretations of Mexico City street food, we continued to make the drive.
But Tinga, as it turns out, shares with La Super Rica only a free imagination and a fondness for the combination of roasted chiles and cheese on just about everything. The streamlined tacos and quesadillas share more with what you might find at Tacolicious in San Francisco, or during the earliest days of Border Grill: Mexican flavors interpreted through European technique.
The quesadilla, for example, may be stuffed with something very close to a Mexican version of duxelles, mushrooms cooked down until they become almost a puree. The cochinita pibil, pork traditionally wrapped with Seville orange and spices in a banana leaf and cooked in a pit, is crisp and delicious, served with the proper pickled onions, but clearly spice-rubbed and slow-roasted, as if the recipe might have come out of Gourmet. And unlike most street taquerias, Tinga very much takes the garnish of the taco as seriously as it does the meat, so that the crunchy bits of blackened steak are sluiced with avocado and juicy tomato salsa, while the pork loin is layered with roast poblano chiles and melted cheese, and the short ribs sing with tomatillo.
Is it possible to enjoy both the pricey Tinga tacos and the cheap, heartfelt al pastor tacos carved to order at the truck that parks nearby on La Brea near Olympic? I submit that it is.
Most of the seating in Tinga is at a communal table running practically the length of the restaurant, but the aisles are wide enough to accommodate strollers, and you will usually stumble over a Bugaboo or two during the day.
TINGA: 142 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. (323) 954-9566, tingabueno.com. Open daily, noon-9 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Tacos $6.50-$8.50 for two. Sides, $3-$7.50. Recommended dishes: tacos de pibil, mushroom quesadillas, elote especial.